I am proud to announce that the Burnt Tongues anthology, in which my short story Paper appears, not only won the 2014 This Is Horror award for Anthology of the Year, but is also nominated for a 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology!
How to Draw Dumb Looking Animals is the latest work-in-progress in the Moron and X/Scars/Reunion of Broken Parts canon. (I can’t seem to settle on a title. I just… I don’t even know.) For those keeping tally, the full list of items published and in-the-works in this series can be found here. Most notable was the recent release of the novella, Blood Gravity, which is a prequel taking place ten years before the first novel (that first novel, by the way, is with a new agent and is making the rounds to prospective publishers right now!)
The following is an excerpt from the first of two (possibly more) planned graphic novels, which I’m no longer calling graphic novels, but “illustrated journals” because of the intended format. This is written from the POV of the younger brother, Ben, at age 16, at a time shortly after the end of the first novel, but covers backstory from the time Ben was eight until the beginning of the first novel. Confused yet?
Anyway, this work will be illustrated by Marylea M. Quintana Madiman, the artist who drew the illustrations in Blood Gravity. But while she’s toiling away on those, I’ve elicited the help of my 11-year-old to generate a few images to go with this excerpt. So without further ado, here is the beginning of How to Draw Dumb Looking Animals:
Two wolves are following me. Always there in the background. Too close. They always have this energy, like coiled springs. But I don’t know what they want. And they’ve been there as long as I can remember.
Every time I try to draw them, they don’t look right. And it isn’t even because I suck at drawing. Maybe I just don’t know what they’re supposed to be. Maybe they’re not wolves at all.
I don’t feel settled. I’ve been living with my older brother Jake for almost a year now. He got official guardianship back in September. I started Sophomore year at a new school. And nothing feels normal. Nothing is normal. Normal humans live at home with their parents and they don’t have to explain to people that their brother isn’t their dad and that they don’t want to talk about it.
Because it’s kind of a long story how I ended up here.
I remember my 8th birthday party. My former best friend Dylan was a dick even back then but I was too stupid to notice. He played with everyone else my parents made me invite, but not me. I hid in the top of a rocket ship that was part of a massive indoor play structure at this pizza place. And watched. The only person who kept looking to see where I was was my brother Jake. He was probably 22 or 23 at the time. He didn’t want to be there. He was waiting for it to end. I was, too, but I kept grinning stupidly anyway. Pretending to be happy is way better than the embarrassment that comes from openly admitting you have no friends.
Dad talked to everyone. He’d smile. They’d smile. We were all so happy happy.
The next week I asked Dylan why the other kids he played with never wanted to play with me. “Well,” he said. “You kind of act… babyish.” This made me cry and proved his point.
I called Jake to ask if I could spend the weekend at his apartment, but he said no. “Why?” I said. He said he wasn’t feeling well. He said that a lot. He said, “Next weekend, okay?”
Dad asked me why I was sad. I said I wasn’t sad. When he put me to bed that night, he laid beside me and read a book for what might have been hours before I finally fell asleep.
I felt better in the morning.
Jake picked me up from school the following Friday for the sleepover. I had been telling Dylan and everyone else about it all day. Two people told me to shut up. But Dylan didn’t. He said, “Your brother seems cool.” I took this as evidence that Dylan wasn’t an asshole, and pretended like he never said or did anything else.
I wanted to ask Jake if Dylan could come too, but I knew he’d say no.
I drew Jake a picture. I always drew him pictures. He always looked at them so closely, every last detail, and it made me nervous. Did he think I did something wrong? Did he not like it? He only ever said, “Thanks,” and would fold it up and put it in his pocket. I wonder if he kept them all somewhere or if he just threw them away.
Anyway, that sleepover turned out to be a disaster. All my fault.
Meet Pernicious Porker. He’s a pig, in case that wasn’t obvious. Except he has razor sharp teeth. And claws. And, well, he’s undead. Probably, he was bitten by a vampire. It must have been a good vampire. The kind that drinks animal blood so they don’t have to hurt people. See, you can still be a vampire and not hurt people. But you can’t not hurt anything. And this is what happened to Pernicious Porker. The vampire couldn’t help it. He needed blood. There was a NEED and you can’t just not do anything when you have a NEED.
Here is a pile of rotting flesh. There’s a little bit of everything. Raccoons, penguins, giraffes, deer, rats, eagles, emus, echidnas, enchiladas, and probably people parts. You know how pigs like to wallow in mud? Pernicious Porker likes to wallow in piles of rotting flesh.
Look how happy he is.
Goddamn, he can’t get enough of it.
Pernicious Porker is a fucking idiot and someone needs to put him out of his misery.
A newborn baby rat looks a lot like a piglet. If you thought grown up rats were ugly, you should see their naked, blind babies. Why anyone would want one as a pet is beyond me.
We had a rat problem in the house once. I was maybe six at the time. Dad had set traps and caught a few. Their necks pinched in a trap until their eyes bulged out. Jake came over to help find where they were nesting. I watched as he crawled under the house with a flashlight. He came out with a handful of little pink piglets, squirming around like maggots.
Dad said, “Excellent work,” and grabbed them from Jake’s hand. He smashed their heads with a brick.
Jake just stared, so Dad said, “They’re rats. And they would have died anyway without their mother.”
Jake went back under the house. This time he said he didn’t find anything, but he had something in his pocket and he got in his car and left in a hurry.
The next time I had a sleepover at his place, he showed me the baby rat maggot he saved. He named it Euclid. He let me feed him with a little syringe and kept saying “You have to be really careful. He’s fragile.”
Euclid lived, and for two years Jake was slightly less depressed.
Then shortly after my 8th birthday I came over for a sleepover. I wasn’t supposed to pick up Euclid without Jake right there, but I decided permission was for babies and I wasn’t going to be a baby anymore. Like, maybe I’d get more friends that way. Dylan might treat me with genuine respect if I told him I was an excellent rat handler.
Jake was in the kitchen heating soup for dinner when he caught me the first time. “Benny, what are you doing!” He rushed over and swiftly grabbed Euclid in a way that was forceful toward me but gentle toward the rat. “Do it again, and I’ll take you straight home,” he said. He put Euclid in his cage, then went and caught the soup just before it boiled over.
When we sat down to eat, I couldn’t help it. I cried.
Jake sighed. (He has this special way of sighing. More about that in a moment.) “I didn’t mean to yell,” he said. “You’re fine, all right? I’m not mad.”
But I knew to keep crying until I got a hug out of the deal. I was probably destined to be a baby forever. Like, the world’s worst cry baby. It was really bad. If I could go back in time, I’d probably off myself before it got so embarrassing. But I’m not supposed to have those thoughts. Shrink’s orders.
Anyway. Here is how Jake sighs:
Somehow his shoulders and the bags under his eyes drop simultaneously.
The whole sigh comes out his nose. His mouth goes flat.
Half the time, no words follow. The other half, words follow only after a pause. Like, maybe he has to wait until all of his breath goes back in, slowly, though his nose first. During this re-breathing process he doesn’t move, doesn’t look at anything. He is in a stasis of utter misery as a result of whatever it was you did that earned the sigh. You should be goddamn ashamed of yourself. But he let that all go with the sigh, so he can humor you now without feeling like murdering you.
Since Jake appeared to be okay with me again after the first rat-handling incident, I no longer felt pressured to behave to any particular standard. When he went to take a shower, I took Euclid out of his cage again.
The rat squirmed, and climbed out of my hands. I caught him before he hit the ground but only by grabbing him too tight. He squeaked. It wasn’t a good squeak. And when Jake came out of the bathroom to find me holding his panting, dying pet, he sighed with his mouth open.
He didn’t yell. Only whispered, “What did you do?” He wouldn’t look at me. He grabbed Euclid from me and sat on his bed cradling him in his hands, looking him over, whispering, “No, no, no.”
The thing was wheezing, squeaking at first, then its breaths slowed way down and stopped. It probably all happened in a matter of minutes, but it felt like hours.
Jake just sat there, mouth hanging open, his dead pet in his hands. And that’s the first time I saw him cry.
He wouldn’t look at me. Didn’t say a word to me the whole rest of the night. In the morning he took me home. I must have said “I’m sorry” a thousand times, but it meant nothing. He didn’t care. He was pretending I didn’t exist.
This was October. I didn’t see him again until Thanksgiving, and by then a lot of things changed.
One stupid mistake on my part. All because I didn’t want to be a baby, all because Dylan said that’s what people thought, all because I cried too much.
I hurt Jake. Because I was stupid. Because I killed his pet. Which was probably the only thing he socialized with. So it made sense he didn’t want to see me for a while. I murdered his best friend. I never told anyone about it. Mom and Dad didn’t even know he had the rat. I felt too guilty. Like I was a horrible human. No one could love me. I was afraid Jake would never love me again.
And because I was afraid, and because I felt guilty, and because I was sad, I made Dad read to me every night, begged him to stay until I fell asleep. He would lie in bed beside me, and I’d lie with my head in the crook of his arm as he held a book and read.
He told me I was getting big. I was growing up. I wasn’t a baby anymore. And he was proud. Those words made him my favorite person in the world.
Soon talking about getting bigger turned into talking about penises getting bigger. Because I was psyched. Because I was ready to grow the fuck up all the way. Dad told me about puberty and I wanted pubic hair. I wanted my dick to grow. I wanted to be like him. Was that all my idea?
See, there’s this way in which I can’t tell if things I said or did as a kid were really me, or if somehow Dad led me to it. My therapist says it doesn’t matter what I said or did. That it was up to Dad to not let it turn into sex. But where did I get the ideas from? Some of the books he read, maybe? Or do all kids have those thoughts?
Maybe that’s why Dylan didn’t like me. Maybe he thought I was weird. He let me touch his dick once. We even kissed. But he was weird about it. Dylan’s an asshole.
Dylan has no fucking clue.
Meet Pecan. He’s a chicken. And he’s nuts. Pecan likes to climb into the farmer’s lap when the farmer is sitting out on his lawn in a lawn chair on lazy summer afternoons. The farmer strokes him. And it makes Pecan happy to be pet like that. Most chickens don’t have farmers who pet them. Pecan is special.
“You’re a fine cock,” says the farmer. “A fine cock indeed.”
I despise feeling lonely. Jake is lonely all the goddamn time and it’s depressing. I don’t even know how he does that. I mean, I’m not exactly the most social person in the world, but he has absolutely no friends. Well, except Madame Burned-Face. But he probably needs her so his balls don’t explode.
Madame Burned-Face was (is?) Jake’s boss at the machine shop where he works. Apparently there was some freak accident with a fire and she like tripped and fell into it or something. That’s what happened to her face. Maybe Jake’s the only person who will screw her now. I don’t know when or where he does it, because he’s pretty much like a ninja about it. Maybe they’re not even dating anymore, I don’t know. It’s all very weird.
Madame Burned-Face has these massive tits. Like, there’s no way there isn’t ten gallons of silicone in each one. And Jake seems unaware of them. Like, he never looks at them, or seems to notice that half her mass is in those things. Maybe they scare him. Jake avoids things that scare him. Pretending things don’t exist, or aren’t happening is pretty much how he deals with the world. And is probably why he has no friends.
Anyway, being lonely is the shit. Which is probably why I clung to Dylan even though he was an asshole. Maybe I partly inherited the friendless gene from Jake, I don’t know. Probably, I’m just weird and people can smell it. So I had Dylan. And looking back, I think the appeal for him was that he could pretty much control me. He made my reality. If he told me I was stupid, then I was. If he told me to bark like a dog, then I would. He was always able to hang out with the cool kids and I thought if he liked me, then they would too. But they never did. Cry babies can be very tiresome to be around. I mean, every little thing you do and they burst into tears. They’re afraid you won’t like them. They can’t handle disapproval. They somehow think crying about it will change something. It’s their only tool. Act sad and people will pity you. It worked so well on Mom and Dad and Jake. It was sometimes highly effective with teachers as well. But it absolutely did not translate to peer relationships.
This is Sad Sap Salamander:
He is crying and wandering around the farm. A horse says, “Why the fuck is there a salamander on the farm?” and a cow says, “Is he fucking crying? And sad sap screams, “I want my daddy!” And Daddy salamander appears. Daddy salamander comforts sad sap, saying, “Don’t be sad, son. I won’t let anyone pick on you. They’re all a bunch of dumbasses anyway.”
Speaking of salamanders…. Jake replaced his stupid, ugly rat with an albino leopard gecko. Like, seriously? The rat wasn’t ugly enough? He named the thing Prometheus because he’s a fucking dork.
If you’ve never seen an albino leopard gecko, well, they’ve got beady red eyes, see-through white skin, a lizard tongue, ugly toes. And I swear the thing’s always molting.
The thing can’t even be in full light. Jake has to drape a towel over its cage. Which is for the best really. Because I don’t want it staring at me all the time.
I mean GOD FORBID WE GET A CAT OR A DOG!
Dino Parenti just posted an excellent review of Blood Gravity over at Pantheon Magazine. Check it out!